While the pun is intentional, the need of women cries out for a renewed response as we enter into this month of national attention to the history of women. The 2016 theme for National Women’s History Month is “Working to Form a More Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Public Service and Government.” This theme seems especially essential as the presidential campaign also marches on!
I deliberately direct this reflection to you, my Sisters of Peace and our Associates, colleagues and friends. Having just finished reading “If Nuns Ruled the World: Ten Sisters on a Mission” by Jo Piazza, who defines “nuns as the most vigorous catalyst of change…” I predict her book will be a bestseller and I can’t wait until she meets the women and men associates who now nationwide surpass the number of vowed members and share the same mission. We have reason to hope for a more perfect union and to believe that change is possible since our laity have eagerly joined our religious families in a Spirit-led movement of associate membership and have found this movement spiritually fulfilling. Associates, coming into their own sense of mission, are also agents of change.
Author Piazza quotes Dorothy Day; “Women think with their whole bodies as they see things as a whole.” Having spent the last quarter century learning from women who live on the margins of American society, I know this adage to be true and I rejoice that our chapter commitments have always included our testimony to “promote justice, especially for women and children.” These commitments have been a way to address women’s spiritual hunger and thirst by offering a ministry of listening as a way for women to be healed and renewed.
When I find myself worried about the future, I recall early in my own spiritual renewal a seminar where the focus question for a large gathering was: “How do you recognize the work of God in your life?” One response that I remember vividly came in a thick Irish brogue: “Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but for me, I have to look back over my shoulder and then I know God was there.” As I look back over my shoulder at the past 50 years since Vatican Council II, I truly see the hand of God creating something new in religious life. It seems clear now in hindsight that the Spirit was guiding Pope John XXIII to surprise the world with the opportunity for renewal through a worldwide council. During this time, women religious took the call to renewal very seriously and moved into a deeper spirituality to be in relationship with God, others and ourselves. We came to know a personal God of love and forgiveness through a variety of retreats and programs that opened both our minds and our hearts. Vatican II was the work of God’s Spirit blowing a new wind, giving us brave leaders through the Leadership of Women Religious (LCWR) who learned and taught new ways of including all members in a spirit of collaboration.
Those of us who lived through Vatican II remember the tsunami that, at the time, seemed to be washing religious life away with the exodus of so many members. Spirituality prevailed! We learned that as the People of God, we are the Church! People were and are still hungry for connectedness with God and with other people, despite differences in race, gender, age, etc. People are thirsty for a Church that speaks to their lives and circumstances and truly listens to their struggles without condemnation. People are hungry for the message of joy and mercy that Pope Francis embodies. We must understand that we are all called and, whatever our life holds, we cannot live the Gospel alone. We are women and men being called to recommit to walking and working together to form a more perfect union. We can imitate our LCWR leadership and continue to practice living as people of peace, faithful in speaking our truth in love, staying at the table in respectful adult conversation. Easy? Never! We will need to turn again constantly to the spirit in prayer and to one another for community and courage.
The reality is that we are reaching an awareness that religious life for women is diminishing, as we have known it, and it will be different. But, as we continue to pray and read the signs of the times, God’s Spirit is blowing through the Church in an unprecedented way, attracting lay women and men who have overcome the stereotyped image that society imposes on men to be in control. They want and need what they see we have—deep and genuine community with all the struggles that life brings while emphasizing prayer, spirituality, service, and a commitment to mission. What women religious need is the energy that associates bring to birth a new vision of how the Church can respond to the needs of the world, especially the poor and the marginalized. Women religious need associates to commit to staying in the struggle for this new vision, just as we women religious stayed the course with the call to renewal under Vatican II. Together we can MARCH forward!